2003 Oscar Preview

Any Washingtonian or political junkie knows that "coattails" means more than just a clothing appendage. Coattails can also mean a popular candidate at the top of a political party's ticket pulling in affiliated candidates for other offices. We approach the 75th Annual Academy Awards on March 23rd with Chicago as the overwhelming favorite for Best Picture. But many other categories still feature very competitive races. Will Chicago's coattails be enough to make the difference? That's the looming question that will hang over Oscar night.

Interspersed among the big picture are several interesting subplots. Will this finally be Martin Scorsese's year? Will Jack Nicholson snag his fourth Oscar? Will the Nia Vardalos fairy tale continue? If Catherine Zeta-Jones wins will she use her acceptance speech to plug T-Mobile? But to me the real question is about me. I've called seven of nine Oscar races correctly each of the past two years -- nearly 78 percent. Will my keen, shrewd insights (or luck, if you'd prefer) continue? As noted, many of these contests remain close. So acknowledging the dangerous terrain, I bravely (or foolishly) offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Michael Ballhaus - Gangs of New York
Dion Beebe - Chicago
Pawel Edelman - The Pianist
Conrad L. Hall - Road to Perdition
Edward Lachman - Far From Heaven

Should win: Ballhaus
Chicago, Far From Heaven and Road to Perdition may have dazzled the eyes more, but no nominee has a greater sense of place than Gangs of New York. Much credit must go to the design and art direction but Ballhaus's camerawork was able to use the brilliant sets to evoke 1860's New York City. Ballhaus frames the shots in ways to feature the little details without losing sight of the main story. He makes you feel the dirt, grime, and blood. More importantly, he helps establish the atmosphere of desperation, anger and dread that are so essential to the film.

Will win: Beebe
People remember the look of Chicago almost as much as the music. Beebe's flashy and provocative use of light and color helped make the stage musical work on film. Longtime veteran Conrad L. Hall, who had already won for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty died last January and would be the sentimental choice. His colleagues posthumously gave him the American Society of Cinematographers award, and an Oscar would serve as a fitting culmination to his legendary career. But Road to Perdition played in the summer and has faded from memory, while the Chicago campaign rages on. If Hall had never won before, this last chance to honor him might be enough. As it stands, he does not have the momentum to overcome Chicago.

Pedro Almodóvar -- Talk to Her
Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan - Gangs of New York
Alfonso Cuarón and Carlos Cuarón -- Y tu mamá también
Todd Haynes - Far From Heaven
Nia Vardalos - My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Should win: Alfonso and Carlos Cuarón
The Cuarón brothers seamlessly combine elements of a road movie and coming-of-age film in this nostalgic, heartfelt, sweet, poignant and funny story of two high school buddies and an older woman. The Cuaróns also make a daring choice by using a third-person all-knowing narrator. The choice works by giving the audience more information and a different perspective on both the lead and supporting characters. The rich, layered screenplay blends the personal story of the three main characters with the changing social, political, and cultural climate in Mexico.

Will win: Vardalos
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) awards often serve as a strong bellwether for Oscar night, but not this time. The WGA selected Bowling for Columbine, which did not receive an Oscar nomination in this category. Most of the heavy hitters -- Chicago, The Hours and The Pianist, are on the Adapted Screenplay list. So this field is wide open. Normally, I'd be inclined to go with the one Best Picture nominee in this category -- Gangs of New York. But many critics and filmgoers considered the Gangs story it's weakest link. There's a chance the Academy could honor Far From Heaven as a consolation for its losing out in the Picture and Director categories, but I don't think that film is on Oscar radar screens anymore. Pedro Almodóvar is an Academy darling, as evidenced by his Best Director nomination this year (in place of Peter Jackson). However, history does not favor him -- no non-English screenplay has won this Oscar since A Man and a Woman in 1967. So that leaves Vardalos. In a normal year I would not bet on a film that only snagged one nomination. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the feel-good film story of 2002. Vardalos will win less for her film's story than for her struggle to get the movie made in the first place.

Bill Condon - Chicago
David Hare - The Hours
Ronald Harwood - The Pianist
Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz - About a Boy
Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman - Adaptation

Should win: Charlie and Donald Kaufman
The Kaufmans (yes, I know Donald Kaufman does not exist, but why should that disqualify him?) redefine the whole idea of adapting a story for the big screen. They include elements from Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but wrap them around Charlie Kaufman's struggle to write the screenplay. The story takes many twists and turns in on itself. In some ways it's a reflection on the struggles of the creative process. In some ways it's a story of friendship and love. In other ways it's a satire of the whole idea of writing a Hollywood screenplay. It's all these things, but in the end it's really about human beings' attempts to connect with themselves and with each other. The Adaptation screenplay was the most clever and innovative of the year, but through all it's many quirks, never loses sight of the humanity at its core.

Will win: Hare
Chicago and The Hours are the big players here, and Chicago is not known for it's story. The Hours also feels literate; the fact that it's about Virginia Woolf doesn't hurt. Hare gets credit for successfully adapting Michael Cunningham's book, which many considered unfilmmable. Hare received the WGA's Adapted Screenplay award and the Academy will follow suit.

Kathy Bates - About Schmidt
Julianne Moore - The Hours
Queen Latifah - Chicago
Meryl Streep - Adaptation
Catherine Zeta-Jones - Chicago

Should win: Bates
In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays a sad withdrawn and emotionally stunted man. The film needed someone to be the wildfire -- the standard Jack Nicholson role. Boy, does Kathy Bates fill that to a tee. Bates grabs you from the moment she appears as Roberta, Schmidt's brassy, bohemian future in-law. She brazenly and un-self consciously inhabits the role. Both her forceful voice and her force-of-nature physicality contrast perfectly with Nicholson's measured performance. The pair's chemistry make their scenes together priceless. Nicholson is the center of About Schmidt, but Bates gives the film the sparks it needs to really work.

Will win: Zeta-Jones
My original thoughts upon viewing the nominations were that Zeta-Jones and Latifah would split the Chicago vote and allow someone else to step in. That hasn't happened so far. Latifah has not won any of the pre-Oscar awards, while Zeta-Jones snagged a BAFTA (British Academy Award) honors and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award. Streep won the Golden Globe, but remember that for her many nominations, she hasn't won an Oscar in 20 years. Moore's performance in The Hours was overshadowed not just by Nicole Kidman, but by Moore's own role in Far From Heaven. Catherine Zeta-Jones has reportedly taken full advantage of Chicago's momentum and Miramax's savvy marketing efforts through her own campaign to woo Academy voters. She's beautiful, charming and, lest we forget, Hollywood royalty. The Academy will not pass up the chance to make her and Michael Douglas the first husband-and-wife acting Oscar winners since Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Chris Cooper - Adaptation
Ed Harris - The Hours
Paul Newman - Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly - Chicago
Christopher Walken - Catch Me if You Can

Should win: Walken
Any of the five nominees would be worthy winners. Reilly and Cooper are earning long overdue recognition. Harris is so versatile and dependable it's easy to take him for granted. Paul Newman -- hey, he's Paul Newman. But I'm going with Walken, because even with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, Walken is the heart and soul of Catch Me if You Can. He gives his most tender and touching performance in years as Frank Abagnale, Sr. Frank's wit and charm attract Frank Jr. (DiCaprio) to the con man's life and his failure gives his son the drive to excel. It's because Walken is so convincing that the film works. He makes the scenes between father and son warm, moving and tragic. Walken is always entertaining just by being Walken, but Catch Me if You Can is a reminder of his true talent.

Will win: Walken
It's between Walken and Cooper, who was the early favorite. Harris is lost among the actresses of The Hours and Newman's performance came and went too long ago. Reilly would seem to have the Chicago edge and the distinction of having appeared in two other Best Picture nominees -- The Hours and Gangs of New York. But he has not won any of the pre-Oscar awards. Both Walken and Cooper earn points for going against type, an Academy favorite. Walken shines in a sympathetic role after years of playing oddballs and villains. Cooper made the most of his chance to play a larger-than-life character after predominantly grim and stoic parts. Cooper won the Golden Globe, while Walken won the BAFTA and SAG awards. This one really could go either way. I'm going with Walken because Adaptation has somewhat faded from view recently and Walken appears to have the late momentum.

Salma Hayek - Frida
Nicole Kidman - The Hours
Diane Lane - Unfaithful
Julianne Moore - Far from Heaven
Renée Zellweger - Chicago

Should win: Kidman
Difficult choice over Hayek. Both turned historical creative figures into full-bodied three-dimensional characters. Hayek also struggled for seven years to get Frida made. She imbued Frida Kahlo with the spirit and drive that made you understand why she and her art are so admired. I'm picking Kidman only because she had to do more by herself. Virginia Woolf is alone for much of her scenes and deep in thought. Kidman holds our interest throughout. She has to set the tone not only for her section of The Hours, but also for the other two, since Woolf's ideas are the prevailing force of the whole film. Many have focused on her makeup, but that's only one part of Kidman's amazing transformation. Her speech and body language are just as important. You quickly forget that it's Kidman up there at all. The Hours abounded with standout performances, but Kidman's is the one to remember.

Will win: Kidman
This is the toughest of the tough calls. Kidman appeared set as the front-runner when the nominations were announced. She had already won a Golden Globe and she was going against type, submerging her movie star glamour as she immersed herself into the dowdy Virginia Woolf. If anything, her primary competition appeared to come from Moore, the critical favorite for Far From Heaven. But then came Chicago. Miramax used the Oscar nominations to market the film as they gradually expanded it's distribution. The popularity and media coverage grew. Much of the coverage focused on Renée Zellweger's learning to sing and dance for the film and her own 180 degree turn from her usual girl-next-door to the scheming floozy Roxie Hart. Suddenly Zellweger upset Kidman at the SAG awards, throwing the Oscar race wide open. Zellweger clearly has the momentum and may very well ride a Chicago tidal wave to victory. But I'm sticking with Kidman. She has justifiably earned plaudits for emerging from Tom Cruise's shadow into one of Hollywood's premier actresses. Many in the industry believe she should have won last year for Moulin Rouge. Oscar has a history of rewarding those initially passed over in the acting categories and my gut tells me that's what will happen this time.

Adrien Brody - The Pianist
Nicolas Cage - Adaptation
Michael Caine - The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis - Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson - About Schmidt

Should win: Cage
Cage, Brody and Nicholson all deserve it. All three create compelling characters largely by themselves. For good chunks of their films they had to act alone, which I believe is the most difficult type of acting. Brody had to bring the audience with him on Wladyslaw Szpilman's agonizing journey through the Holocaust in Warsaw. Often with just glances and pauses, he draws you into Szpilman's internal struggles as life crumbles around him. Nicholson showed new sides of his talents, building Warren Schmidt from small strokes rather than his usual grand gestures. He has never been more vulnerable, restrained or captivating on screen. I'll take Cage though, because he developed two complete characters who had to spend most of their screen time with each other. This was not like a good twin and an evil twin. Both Charlie and Donald Kaufman have infinite complexities. Charlie struggles with his goals and limitations, while Donald embraces who he is. Yet they are more alike than we realize at first. Cage draws these two distinct personalities so well that if it had been two different actors I would marvel at their chemistry. If Cage played either Charlie or Donald he would merit a nomination. For both he merits the win.

Will win: Day-Lewis
Jack Nicholson initially appeared the favorite for his record-setting (for a male) fourth acting Oscar. He had already snagged a Golden Globe, Hollywood loves him, and he won plaudits for excelling in a role far different from his trademark hellraiser parts. But About Schmidt, even more than Adaptation, underwhelmed the Academy. Nicholson and Kathy Bates's nods were its only nominations. As such, it's receded from view somewhat. Daniel Day-Lewis is the standout of the most nominated film on this list. While not a commercial hit and drawing some knocks for it's story, Gangs of New York is well-respected and highly promoted by Miramax. Remember that we have no actors from Chicago or The Hours in this category. That means all of the Miramax Best Actor push went to Day-Lewis. He's gotten wonderful media coverage of his comeback from a five-year hiatus and for his throwing himself into his role as gang-leader Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (staying in character the whole shoot, making people address him as "Bill," etc.). Like Best Actress, this race could break either way, but the Miramax pull will give Day-Lewis the edge.

Pedro Almodóvar - Talk to Her
Stephen Daldry - The Hours
Rob Marshall - Chicago
Roman Polanski - The Pianist
Martin Scorsese - Gangs of New York

Should win: Polanski
Roman Polanski long ago became the master of showing fear and dread slowly lurking in from under the surface (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Frantic, etc.). With The Pianist, Polanski tackles a subject more massive and terrifying than even he had attempted before. In the throes of the Holocaust death does not need to be evoked; it's right there. Polanski somehow tells an immense story by scaling things down. He recognized that he was not trying to depict the whole Holocaust, but the story of one man's journey. He wisely keeps the story through Wladyslaw Szpilman's point-of view and uses Adrien Brody's magnificent performance as his primary instrument. Of all the nominees, Polanski does the most complete job of storytelling.

Will win: Marshall
To say that Martin Scorsese is the sentimental choice is an understatement. He's universally admired and considered by many in and out of the film industry as America's greatest living director. Oscar passed him over many times before while Scorsese waited patiently. This time he's got the Miramax marketing muscle behind him. Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein reportedly promised Scorsese the Oscar, and he has made every effort to follow through. But Gangs of New York never really took off with filmgoers; certainly nowhere near the way Chicago did. Even it's critical reviews were mixed. Chicago grabbed the limelight and the focus as it's popularity grew. It's only logical that Rob Marshall's candidacy would strengthen. Miramax may have pushed Scorsese more than Marshall, but overall Chicago was their flagship film this year and Marshall had to benefit. Contrary to popular opinion, Oscar does not always go for the heartwarming choice. Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall was considered a shoo-in six years ago for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Juliette Binoche. Rob Marshall just won the Directors Guild of America award -- a reliable Oscar bellwether. That win was the latest sign that popularity will triumph over sentiment.

Who I really, really want to win: Scorsese
For every category in all my Oscar Previews, I always pulled for the nominee I wrote "should win." Not this time. Martin Scorsese is the most daring and distinctive director of my lifetime. His signature films have a life and energy you don't find anywhere else. Gangs of New York is nowhere near his best film or the most worthy of the five nominees. Guess what? I don't care. Somehow the Academy didn't even nominate him for Taxi Driver. Scorsese's Raging Bull, named by many critics groups as the finest film of the 80's, lost to Robert Redford's moving but unexceptional Ordinary People. His brilliant Goodfellas, which redefined and reinvigorated the whole gangster genre, lost to Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner's revisionist PC Western. If there was ever a case of "We owe him," this is it. Normally I disapprove of "Sorry about that" Oscars, but the pull here's too great. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. I can live with that if Scorsese gets his overdue reward on Oscar night.

Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist

Should win: The Pianist
The Pianist succeeds because it's inspiring and moving without overtly trying to be. Unlike other films set during the Holocaust, The Pianist is unflinching but also completely unsentimental. The Pianist does not have the grand epic scope of Schindler's List, but such a take would have been wrong for this film. Ronald Harwood's script at first illustrates how the Nazis slowly stripped the vestiges of life from Wladyslaw and his family. Later, the film becomes a sheer struggle for survival. Roman Polanski's minimalist direction keeps the focus on Brody's fearless performance as Szpilman. Because of the script, direction and Brody's authenticity, the film succeeds in placing you in Szpilman's shoes. You go with him on a journey more harrowing and fascinating than any on film in recent years.

Will win: Chicago
Easiest call of the night. The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers may have made more money, but it's Oscar nomination total paled next to The Fellowship of the Ring last year and the Academy ignored director Peter Jackson. Gangs of New York never really caught on and The Pianist does not have the exposure of the other nominees. For all of The Hours acting raves, it's appeal was limited. That leaves Chicago. It's the true crowd pleaser, filling the screen with sex, wit, color, song and dance. In some ways it appeals to Academy voters for the same reasons Gladiator resonated two years ago -- the rediscovery of a once-popular genre. Chicago reminds older Academy voters of the musicals they loved many years ago. That's why it's chances are so much better now than those for the much more creative Moulin Rouge last year. The signs are all there -- Chicago has the most total Oscar nominations, won the Golden Globe best comedy/musical and the Producers Guild of America best picture award. Like most Chicago elections, this one's preordained.

Adam Spector
March 19, 2003

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